Bruce Onobrakpeya turned 90 on August 31, and artists worldwide celebrated his six decades of creative works.
Bruce is world famous. He has exhibited in places like Tate Modern in London, the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution Washington D.C., and the Malmö Konsthall, Malmö, Sweden. In Nigeria, his masterpiece hangs on the wall of The National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos. In addition, you’ll find his works at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art.
Born in Agbarha-Otor in Delta State, he moved to Benin City, Edo State, with his family when he was a child. Bruce attended Western Boys High School, was taught art by Edward Ivehivboje, and attended drawing classes at the British Council Art Club in Benin City.
The watercolor paintings of Emmanuel Erabor inspired him a lot. After high school, he became a teacher at the Western Boys High School (1953–56), then he relocated to Ondo, and did the same job in 1956 at Ondo Boys High School. By October 1957, he was a student at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria). Through the funds of a government-sponsored scholarship, he was trained in the Western tradition of representational art. Bruce was simultaneously schooling and experimenting with forms related to Nigerian folklore, myths, and legends. Looking at many of his works, you will find a combination of stylistic elements and compositions, a blend of traditional African sculpture and decorative arts.
At 90, Onobrakpeya says he still has a lot to do in the art world, says he feels all the years were like yesterday.
In his words: “ninety is like yesterday. Yet, I still feel that there are so many things yet to be done and I’m praying to God to give me time to do all of them. You don’t know when you’re born and so don’t worry at all when your work will be done. It’s God who knows the time. Just keep going. These are my reflection. At 90, there are still a lot of grounds to conquer and the thought of what is to be done remove the morbid feelings that I think a lot of people have. They are morbid. They’re thinking about death. They are thinking about dying. God made you to be 90 and He has a plan for you. And whatever He has for you, all you have to do is to pray that He gives you the energy and the time to carry them out.”
For the record, Onobrakpeya is still active in the studio Harmattan workshop project and states the Nigerian art market and says this is longevity isn’t strange; it’s in the blood.
“My father was 112 years when he passed on. People used to say that how do you know? There was no record. I said look there were records. What we calculated was that when the British Army touched Benin Empire, my father was 10 years. He was in age when the British invasion took place. Ten years before the British invasion. So by that metric, my father died at 112. So the gene has something to do with it. I agree on the gene,” he explained.
Sources note that his efforts as a pioneer member of the Zaria Art Society during his years at the Zaria-based Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (famously called NCAST) made him one of the most respected contemporary Nigerian artists in history.